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Michael Marsh aka Mikey Vigilante shows off books that he uses as inspiration for his custom pieces. Photos by Sarah Bennett

The first time that Michael Marsh pushed ink from a tattoo gun into someone else’s skin, it was to draw a permanent playing card with a ribbon around it that said “Born to Lose.” He was nervous. His hand shook.

Marsh’s first client was a biker, like most of the other gruff guys who came into the Michigan basement where he first learned how to tattoo. Marsh remembers spending days on end there with his mentor, learning how to do colorful pieces and hard-edged lettering typical of the classic tattoo style.

More than a decade later and Marsh is now better known as Mikey Vigilante, a Long Beach tattoo artist specializing in Japanese-style work that hugs the body like clothing. He has one of the best custom portfolios around.

After spending time working at Zulu Tattoo and Long Beach’s Outer Limits (the oldest operating tattoo parlor in the country!), Marsh set out on his own, doing tattoos from a sterile but unlicensed private studio in his home with dreams of one day moving into a legitimate storefront.

papercrane1This weekend, he celebrates the grand opening of Paper Crane Studio, his own tattoo shop, nestled in a nondescript East Village storefront on the street level of the Lafayette Building. It’s the first tattoo shop to be built south of Anaheim street since the Cyclone Racer sped above Long Beach’s shores and also the first one to model its intimate feel and large-scale pieces off of traditional Japanese studios, where full-body artwork is crafted to fit each client.

“From what I can understand about the traditional Japanese studios, the vibe is pretty similar,” he says. “It’s a low-key environment. There’s more trust and no interruption. I get one-on-one time with my client, which is really important when we’re doing huge pieces on more sensitive parts of the body.”

Eschewing what Marsh calls the “Hollywood model” of tattoo shops–big windows, neon lights, heavily tattooed guys hacking out pre-fab flash on anyone that walks in–Paper Crane Studio is more of a private space that currently holds two tattoo chairs (one for his apprentice Tan Vo) and a drafting table where Marsh is able to scan through his many Japanese art and tattoo books and incorporate them into the massive art pieces that will soon adorn people’s bodies.

“I like to be challenged,” he says. “When people come in with a design ready to go, I tell them to let me work on it some more. If they like my work, then they liked stuff that was done when other people let me do my thing.”

Paper Crane’s emphasis on privacy and custom art is what helped it become the first tattoo shop to open outside of the City’s strict zoning restrictions, which until last year only allowed the act to occur along Pacific Coast Highway and a small stretch of Anaheim Street. In a staff report published before Paper Crane’s Planning Commission hearing in November–filed after a 2012 alteration in the Downtown Plan listed tattoo shops as allowed businesses–it says that “tattoo parlors are considered to be establishments in which artistic expression takes place” and that his tattoo parlor would be a “compatible use within the east Village Arts District community.”


Photos of Mikey Vigilante’s work from his portfolio. 

There was only one formal protest to Paper Crane’s opening and it was lodged not against the idea of a tattoo parlor in the neighborhood, but of Marsh and his previous experience with home tattooing, which he says he was honest about with the commission.

Since getting his Health Department permit in March, Marsh has been tattooing, on average, around 5 hours a day with clients both old and new streaming in to have a custom Mikey Vigilante piece placed on them. Already, he says the neighborhood has embraced Paper Crane and he has done work for a dozen or so residents.

In addition to Marsh and his apprentice’s chairs that occupy the front room, there is a large back room at Paper Crane that as of now remains empty. He plans on building it out eventually and possibly offering chairs to a few more artists–if they fit the vibe.

“This whole thing has been organic. I’m not trying to make a commercial studio where I’m going to hire six artists and create a money machine,” he says. “When the right people come along, I’ll know.”

Paper Crane Studio is located at 530 E. Broadway, (562) 999-1454. Paper Crane Studio’s Grand Opening Party will be held on Saturday, April 27 from 6PM to 11PM and will feature DJs as well as food from Asha and Michael’s Pizzeria. For more information visit

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